With Texas A&M’s final nonconference game in the books on Saturday, Aggies third-year coach Billy Kennedy sighed in relief for the first time in three weeks.
"It’s good to get back in the win column," Kennedy said following the Aggies’ 63-46 victory over Texas-Pan American before 5,278 fans in Reed Arena.
A&M (9-4), which won its first game since Dec. 14, snapped a two-game losing streak. The Broncs (4-12) have dropped eight consecutive contests under first-year coach Dan Hipsher.
"They’ve lost a lot of games," Kennedy said of UTPA, "but nobody has been able to put them away."
That was the case on Saturday for more than 30 minutes, when the Aggies led only 49-44 midway through the second half, with A&M fans anticipating perhaps another Aggies meltdown following their 61-41 upset by North Texas on New Year’s Eve.
This time, however, A&M closed out the scoring on a 14-2 run spurred by a 3-pointer by Shawn Smith with 4:09 remaining that gave the Aggies an 11-point lead (55-44), and a slam dunk by Jamal Jones on a fast break with 3:22 remaining that made it 59-44.
"We took an inordinate amount of 3-pointers," Hipsher said of one of the Broncs’ shortcomings. "And the thing we couldn’t do was get to the rim."
Both teams were ineffective from long range. The Broncs finished 7 of 27 (25.9 percent) from the 3-point line and the Aggies countered with 7 of 26 (26.9 percent). Jones tallied a game-high 16 points, while A&M’s Alex Caruso chipped in 13 points and a game-high six assists, four steals and three blocks.
"He had an outstanding game," Kennedy said of the Aggies’ most consistent player springing into Southeastern Conference play.
Justin Leathers led the Broncs, who haven’t won since Nov. 27 at Lamar, with 13 points.
"We didn’t have any thoughts that we were going to lose," Caruso said of the still-narrow contest with 10 minutes remaining. "It was just a matter of going out there and actually doing it."
The Aggies outscored UTPA 13-3 in both second-chance and fast-break points.
Kennedy, in playing only eight Aggies 15 minutes or more in anticipation of the start of SEC play, turned to senior guard Fabyon Harris for his first start of the season in place of sophomore forward Antwan Space.
Harris, who started 24 games last season and averaged 12 points during the Aggies’ 18-15 campaign, responded with 10 points and three assists.
"That gave me a lot of confidence," Harris said of reaching double digits in scoring for only the third time this season. "And I need that to help this team win."
A&M, which has missed the NCAA tournament in Kennedy’s first two seasons following an NCAA postseason run from 2006-11 under two prior coaching staffs, opens its SEC slate on Wednesday at home against Arkansas.
The Broncs play host to Idaho on Thursday in their second Western Athletic Conference contest (following a 91-85 loss at Grand Canyon on Thursday).
A&M played its third consecutive game minus touted sophomore guard J-Mychal Reese, who was dismissed from the program on Dec. 21 following a repeat violation of athletic department rules. He had also missed the first four games of the season because of a rules violation. The speedy Harris is earning more playing time because of Reese’s dismissal.
"We’ve got a young team that lost a couple of games (to Oklahoma and UNT) when we just couldn’t score," Kennedy said. "We’ve had some adversity lately, but I was proud the players hung together and didn’t panic."